[March 19: Addition of new paragraph 5, "Predicting the Unpredictable," and, following the blog entry, responses to some blog readers' comments.]
["[W]e need to be willing to invest [in energy]. But if the investment is in nuclear energy, it must be absolutely safe." Editorial, "Nuclear Energy in Iowa Must be Used Safely," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 19, 2011, p. A13.]
What is, what should be, America's and Iowa's nuclear power plant future?
The blog essay I'd like to write on the subject will take more time, over time, than I have to devote to it this morning.
So here are some bullet points that, with luck, I'll be able to expand upon over time.
1. Conservation and Population. Our greatest source of the very cheapest energy is conservation. To focus solely on the energy supply side is like earning and borrowing ever more money each year in the futile effort to satisfy all of one's escalating wants, manipulated by a consumerist culture and economy, rather than budgeting and evaluating one's values and true needs. Conservation examples: encouraging more walking and use of bicycles, where feasible, rather than cars; relying proportionately more on urban and cross-country rail, rather than trucks and cars; transferring the tens of billions of dollars earmarked for the nuclear industry to an aggressive home insulation program.
Even less politically popular than conservation would be zero growth population policies. But, of course, the grim reality is that the world's population has gone from 300 million 2000 years ago, to one billion in 1800, 2 billion by 1927, 3 billion by 1960, 4 billion by 1974, 5 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 1999 -- on to a projected 9 billion by 2050. That's 1800 years to add 700 million, 127 years to add the second billion, 33 years to add the third, 14 years to add the fourth billion, 13 years to add the fifth, and 12 years to reach 6 billion.
There has been a three-fold increase in population just during my lifetime. But of course the increase in energy demand grows even faster than population. As a reader wrote me, "World population continues to increase at an alarming rate. Even if we could completely stop population growth tomorrow, people in India and China want our quality of life. They want cars, big houses, appliances, and lots of fancy electronic things. The need for energy will continue to skyrocket." Even if the world's people continued to use energy, per person, at the rates they do today, imagine the difference it would make if there were only half as many people to use (and waste) energy as there are now.
2. No Utopias. There is no single, perfect answer to our energy needs. No matter what we do, there will continue to be climate change, death and injury to civilian populations, and obviously the workers (e.g., the Japanese nuclear plant workers who are dying and will die as I write; those who died on BP's offshore drilling rig, and in the Massey coal mines, last year; those whose health is affected by polluted air and water; those who will suffer property damage, injury and death from exploding natural gas pipelines).
3. The Mix. We will undoubtedly continue to draw upon a mix of sources. Were we to put a multiple of present resources behind wind, solar, biomass, and hydro (which are not devoid of downsides) they could contribute a great deal more than they do now. But for the foreseeable future we are going to continue to have a significant reliance on coal, oil, natural gas -- and nuclear (now providing about 20% of our electric energy).
4. Risk Assessment. Assessing the risk of any event, from falling downstairs to a nuclear disaster, involves, among others, at least two factors: (a) What are the odds, the likelihood, that the event will occur? (b) If it does occur, how serious (i.e., costly in property damage and human life and health) would it be?
There are about 442 operating nuclear reactors in the world; four failed in the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. That is one percent of the world's reactors. Individuals will differ as to how likely a risk that is. But few would differ on the potential seriousness of the consequences should it occur. Coal mining and offshore oil drilling also pose risks to the environment and human life; the likelihood of their occurring are greater than for a nuclear disaster; but the quantity of the impact on human life and health is much less than a nuclear disaster when they do occur.
5. Predicting the Unpredictable. Whether dealing with possible terrorist threats to our airline industry, or the next big thing to threaten the safety of a nuclear reactor, it's much easier to respond to the last threat than to anticipate the next. One airline passenger puts a bomb in his shoe, and the next two million passengers have to take their shoes off before boarding. It's like the southern folktale, "The Story of Epaminondas and His Auntie." (E.g., Epaminondas brings home cake in his hand, turning it to crumbs, and is told he should have put it under his hat. The next day he's sent for butter, brings it home under his hat, where it melts down his face. The pattern continues.)
We're always working on the last threat, rather than preparing for the next. Was a nuclear power plant built to withstand a 7.2 magnitude earthquake "safe"? Sure -- until it's hit with a magnitude 9 earthquake, followed by a tsunami. We can build nuclear reactors to withstand the threats we have either dealt with before, or those we can imagine. But ironically, the very fact there have been so few nuclear reactor disasters means that it is even more difficult to predict what may trigger the next one. All we can know with certainty is that it will probably involve an event that no one predicted.
6. Decommissioning. Like natural gas pipelines that can corrode or otherwise increase the risk of ruinous explosions and fires with the passage of time, so do nuclear reactors. Among other things, the bombarding nuclear activity and heat can weaken the safety structures. Some engineers are suggesting the Fukushima reactors either were scheduled for decommissioning, or should have been, before now. Apparently, a forty-year operating life (which these had) is close to the outer reaches of safe operation. That would mean that the reactors in the U.S. that were constructed prior to 1971, which is a goodly number of them, are due to be decommissioned -- or, as in Germany, at least shut down and subjected to a very, very thorough stress and safety check (an approach rejected by the President and nuclear industry). Not incidentally, decommissioning is a lengthy and costly process, which is but one of the reasons the profit-driven nuclear and electric utility industries have a motive for pushing their luck.
7. Corruption and Capture. Warnings tend to be ignored. Massey's safety record was well known by government and within the industry. Ditto for BP. Ditto for nuclear. In the 1960s, GE's Mark I -- the reactor built at Daiichi -- was touted as a more economical source of nuclear power. Engineers inside and outside the company warned that the cost savings increased safety hazards. Some predicted years ago the precise scenario we have been witnessing over the last ten days in Japan.
In the case of BP, the "regulatory" agency employees were literally sleeping with the industry, while accepting on faith BP's representations regarding the safety of its operations. As a rough rule of thumb, major companies and industries get a return of 1000-to-one on their campaign contributions; give a million, get a billion. One form of that return is watered down, or non-existent, regulation as a result of Congressional, or Presidential intervention.
Unfortunately, this can also take the form of public officials essentially echoing industry propaganda. It was only days before the BP loss of life and ecological disaster that President Obama was assuring Americans that, because of technological improvements, any harm from offshore drilling was virtually impossible. More recently, the President and his Administration have been touting both the necessity and safety of his multi-billion-dollar push for more nuclear power plants. Not incidentally, he has recently appointed the CEO of GE -- the company that stands to gain the most from increased nuclear power plant construction (and whose officers were major Obama campaign contributors, not to mention the executives of MSNBC) -- to a top White House position, while essentially ignoring the ongoing, and unresolved, problems associated with nuclear waste disposal.
8. Increased Nuclear Safety Possible, but Unlikely. There is much that can be done to decrease -- not eliminate, but decrease -- the risk of nuclear disaster. Examples might include stronger containment vessels, removing (or at least not putting new) reactors that are close to major urban centers, drinking water supplies, or seismic fault lines. Unfortunately, for the reasons set forth above (7. "Corruption and Capture") such measures are unlikely to be as vigorously pursued as good science and rational policy would dictate.
9. Who pays? Not incidentally, it is we, as utility ratepayers and taxpayers, who pay for nuclear generated power plants. They are essentially a freebee for shareholders. Sometimes ratepayers must pay in advance of construction; always they will pay eventually in higher rates; and always they will pay as taxpayers following a major disaster. It's another example of "free private enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich."
Moreover, there's a lesson to be learned from the lack of "free market" response to the nuclear "opportunity," even with billions of dollars from Washington. The relatively low price of domestic natural gas, the enormous (multi-billion-dollar) cost per reactor, the unsolved problem of nuclear waste, and the enormous safety concerns (even if taxpayers pick up most of the economic costs of disasters) have discouraged potential investors from building nuclear power plants over the past couple decades. Sometimes, as citizens, we need to listen to the marketplace in shaping public policy -- even if, as ratepayers and taxpayers, we are willing to be snookered by the utilities and their kept public officials.
[The author of an anonymous comment on this blog says, in part, "To verify my sincerity I can tell you that I live within 10 miles of a plant similar to the ones in Japan except for a few important facts. 1. It is not on a fault line. . . ."
Now I'm not about to predict an earthquake in Iowa, or that if one were to occur Iowa's nuclear power plants would be at risk. After all, how could I know? Besides, the 1811 earthquake epicenter was somewhat south of Iowa, between Missouri and Illinois. But I do note that three months ago FEMA thought an earthquake in this region is "a significant risk today."
The  earthquake took place in the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ), which is the site of several of the largest historical earthquakes to ever strike the continental U.S. and remains a significant risk today. . . . The earthquake caused strong shaking throughout the central U.S. . . . its impacts were felt as far away as Washington and Ohio . . . [and] caused large areas to be uplifted or dropped down in elevation."On The 199th Anniversary of New Madrid Quake, FEMA Urges the Public To Be Prepared Today," FEMA/Department of Homeland Security, December 16, 2010.
Since then, the regions along the NMSZ have experienced explosive growth in both population and infrastructure. Another series of earthquakes with the magnitude of the 1811 earthquakes could prove catastrophic to the region.
The same comment author says, "The biggest difference [between the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, and the one in Palo, Iowa] is that in the U.S. we NEVER put 6 reactors in one place. When this is done you just end up with a problem waiting to happen." However, the March 19, 2011, Gazette reports that Palo, where there is already a 37-year-old reactor, is at least one of the possible sites for a second reactor. The story details some of the advantages of putting a new one there, but omits to mention the increased risks noted by the comment author. Rick Smith, "MidAmerican downplays mention of Palo as nuke site, but some say it makes good sense," The Gazette, March 19, 2011, p. A1.]